Managing Stress in College
College requires significantly more effort from students than high school. Once you enter college, you will probably find that your fellow students are more motivated, your instructors are more demanding, the work is more difficult, and you are expected to be more independent. These higher academic standards and expectations are even more evident in graduate school. As a result of these new demands, it is common for college students to experience greater levels of stress related to academics.
Many students find that they need to develop new skills in order to balance academic demands with a healthy lifestyle. Fortunately, it’s at schools like Southern Utah University and other Colleges of Distinction that students can get help developing these skills. Many students find that they can reduce their level of academic stress by improving skills such as time management, stress management, and relaxation.
The Pros and Cons of Stress
Stress is anything that alters your natural balance. When stress is present, your body and your mind must attend to it in order to return you to balance. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that help you cope with the situation. That in turn takes energy away from the other functions of your brain, like concentrating, or taking action. There are two different sources of stress: external triggers, like getting a poor grade or breaking up with your girlfriend/boyfriend, and internal triggers, like placing high expectations on yourself.
Stress is a part of everyday life. There are many instances when stress can be helpful. A fire alarm is intended to cause the stress that alerts you to avoid danger. The stress created by a deadline to finish a paper can motivate you to finish the assignment on time. But when experienced in excess, stress has the opposite effect. It can harm our emotional and physical health, and limit our ability to function at home, in school, and within our relationships. But the good news is that, since we are responsible for bringing about much of our own stress, we can also do much to manage stress by learning and practicing specific stress-reduction strategies.
The Huffington Post compiled 5 helpful ways to get you through college with less stress. (Quotes are from Susan Stiffelman, a psychotherapist who has helped countless people cope with school stresses.)
- Take time for self-care.
Stiffelman emphasizes that you have to start with the basics, like sleep. “You have to give your organism the means to cope with stress, and that includes healthy food, non-harmful substances, sleep (dramatically more than most kids think they need), down time… Building into your day right-brain activity that lets you digest what you’ve been going through and process it. Those are some basic and almost biological needs we have.”
Taking time to pause from the relentless pace of everyday life and enjoy creative activities that keep you from dwelling on or stressing over school pressures can go far in decreasing your stress levels.
- Learn to change your thinking.
“You cannot get stressed out unless you believe your thoughts,” says Stiffelman. “All stress is precipitated by stressful thinking.”
When you start stressing about not finishing your project on time, your mind builds a case for why what you believe is going to happen will happen—and this can be paralyzing. So, when combating negative thinking patterns, Stiffelman recommends coming up with specific examples to counter the stressful thoughts. Think instead of concrete ways that you can create the time to work on a project, and how your previous line of thinking isn’t accurate.
- Take assignments one baby step at a time.
Stiffelman advises her young clients to chunk their work down into manageable, bite-sized portions that feel less overwhelming than looking at the big picture. If you have an essay to write that’s making you feel anxious, list the individual steps that lead to the destination of the essay being finished (finding sources, creating an outline, writing an intro), and the task will begin to feel less daunting.
“List what you have going on, and list how much time each thing is going to take,” she suggests. “Chunking things down makes them feel more manageable and less anxiety-inducing.”
- Lower your goals.
No, we’re not talking about being a slacker. According to Stiffelman, following the truism “Lower your goals, you’ll achieve more,” can help to relieve stress and boost academic success.
Instead of setting your goal to be getting the highest grade in the class, set a goal to feel satisfied with your performance.
- Stay balanced during exam periods.
The importance of taking breaks and working in time to relax during your busiest and most stressful periods can’t be overestimated, Stiffelman urges. Not matter how hard you push yourself, nobody can maintain constant focus, and you will burn yourself out if you try. Take frequent, short breaks for fun activities so that you’ll be able to go back to your writing or studying refreshed.
“Do something that, even for 15 minutes, brings you back to yourself,” says Stiffelman. “I’ll often say, ‘What did you love to do when you were six years old?’ Do a little bit of that when you’re in prep mode to counterbalance the stress—no brain can work for 24 hours.”